The New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) held a public hearing on November 20th for a newly proposed organic waste recycling rule. It would increase the number of restaurants, stores, and other businesses required to source-separate organic waste for composting or other environmentally acceptable disposal.

Compared to cities like San Francisco and Seattle, which mandate food waste separation and recycling for all businesses and residents, even under this new rule New York’s participation in commercial composting would remain quite modest. It would involve only major food waste producers, applying to only about 10,000 of a universe of approximately 200,000 establishments citywide. The composting expansion also would be phased in slowly, with full enforcement not expected until early 2021.

However, the timing of this expanded recycling mandate is significant, because it coincides with the transition to the “zoned” commercial waste collection system legislated by the City Council on October 30th.

The Commercial Waste Zone (CWZ) law has been justly praised as a way to improve public and worker safety by reducing and rationalizing collection routes in the city. Instead of the status quo, in which private collectors operate citywide, discrete collection zones will be established in which no more than three collectors work. (The zone boundaries haven’t yet been drawn, nor have the companies that will operate in them been selected.) This is expected to eliminate more than 11 million unnecessary truck miles driven each year, while also holding waste haulers to higher (and safer) operating standards.

In tandem with more stringent composting and recycling regulations, the CWZ system also can sharply reduce the significant greenhouse gas emissions caused by landfilling commercial waste, particularly food waste.

New York City’s commercial establishments are estimated to produce a staggering 650,000 tons of food waste annually. When buried in landfills, food scraps and other organic waste become a major source of methane gas emissions that contribute heavily to climate change.

There are five ways the CWZ system — if implemented aggressively and thoroughly — can help reduce climate emissions, multiply the effects of the DSNY organic recycling rule, and create good, sustainable jobs in the bargain.

First, The CWZ system will enable organic waste to be collected more efficiently and cheaply. Currently restaurants and stores that use composting services may be widely scattered geographically, and running separate trucks for organic waste collection can therefore be costly and inefficient for haulers. With a limit of three haulers operating in each zone, the new CWZ system should result in lower operational costs for haulers, enabling them to run denser, more frequent compost routes and offer organic waste collection at more affordable prices.

Second, the CWZ system can be structured to ensure that haulers provide organic recycling service to far more customers and offer customer discounts for recycling. Waste haulers will now engage in a competitive “request for proposals” (RFP) process to determine which will serve in each commercial zone. DSNY will be required to weigh each proposer’s plan and ability to provide organics recycling services to their business customers, at a lower price than they charge them for landfilling. Such pricing incentives would encourage customers to correctly separate organic waste and recyclables, boosting participation in composting.

Third, community-based “microhaulers” can scale up to provide organics recycling to additional smaller customers . The CWZ law encourages the proliferation of local organic waste recyclers who use bicycles and zero-emissions vehicles to collect, consolidate, and locally compost organic waste. These microhaulers may be able to partner with larger, truck-based haulers to aggregate source-separated food scraps from restaurants, bodegas, and office buildings.

Fourth, both the proposed new organics recycling rule and the CWZ system will encourage businesses to reduce waste at its source. As part of their RFPs, waste haulers will need to submit plans to reduce disposed waste in the zones where they want to work. (DSNY also needs to set rigorous waste reduction targets for each zone.) This could motivate waste companies and commercial customers to collaboratively and intensively reduce what goes into the waste stream, including by donating perfectly edible food to charities that feed hungry New Yorkers.

Fifth and finally, the CWZ system should also encourage major investments in modern, clean organics recycling facilities in or near New York City. Critically, the RFP process in the CWZ law will not be limited to collection operations but will also consider each hauler’s plans to invest in new recycling facilities and infrastructure. Cities like San Jose (CA) that have transitioned to efficient and stable commercial waste zone systems have used public-private partnerships to build modern, clean facilities specifically designed to process commercial food waste. This is a long-term jobs creator; data show that recycling and composting consistently create five to 20 times as many jobs as landfilling and incineration.

It has been six years since a broad coalition of workers and advocates began calling for fundamental reform of the commercial waste system, and, coincidentally, six years since the City’s first limited composting requirements for commercial food waste went into effect. With major progress on both fronts at hand, New York is now poised to greatly accelerate the pace of change for the better.

Justin Wood is NYLPI’s Director of Organizing and Strategic Research. This article was originally published by Urban Matters.

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